The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs


Steve Brusatte




Date Reviewed:

August 24, 2021

here is a lot to like in The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs. First off, it is about dinosaurs, and who doesn't love that? This book attempts to give a broad overview of the 165 million years that dinosaurs lived on Earth. Quite a successful run. For comparison, Homo sapiens emerged only around 300,000 years ago, so we have a ways to go if we wish to claim the crown as "most successful species on Earth."

Brusatte describes the dawn of the dinosaurs millions of years ago, when all the continents of Earth were compacted into one giant land mass called Pangea. The Earth was sweltering hot, carbon dioxide levels were 1200 parts per million - there were huge deserts that were so hot that animals simply could not exist in them. Dinosaurs were not immediately the dominant lifeforms in these primordial days. The apex species were huge crocodile-type monsters, called archosaurs. But as the continents split apart, conditions changed, and dinosaurs thrived. They were able to out-compete the super-crocs, and soon they had assumed the role as the primary species. (Note: even way back in the Triassic period, mammals existed, but they too were dominated by the archosaurs. When the dinosaurs assumed control, mammals continued to dwell in the shadows and margins, living unobtrusive lives.

The book contains some details of exciting new dinosaur research, such as the discovery that melanosomes could be detected using a high powered microscope. Melanosomes determine the color of animal tissue, and the shape of a melanosome is different for each color. Thus, scientists can now determine what color particular dinosaurs were.

Brusatte also explains the discovery of feathers on dinosaurs. It wasn't just the proto-birds that had feathers, but huge creatures like Tyrannosaurus Rex also had feathers.

During the Jurassic era, there were gigantic, long-necked sauropods such as Brachiosaurus, Diplodocus, and Brontosaurus. Brusatte explains that the necks and teeth of each species was optimized for eating different plants - browsing tree tops or sweeping up ferns in huge mouthfuls. The giant sauropods did not directly compete against each other for food, each species munched on different flora.

Most of the book covers broad sweeps of time, and so favorites like Stegosaurus or Ankylosaurus only get mentioned in passing. I don't think Styracosaurus was mentioned even once. But there is one chapter devoted to Tyrannosaurs. Brusatte describes the incredible size and power of these monstrous predators. He even suggests that Tyrannosaurs may have hunted in packs, with the giant adults surrounded by fleet-footed (but still deadly) juveniles. Despite their fearsome size and strength, Brusatte says that of the 50 known Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons, none lived beyond age 30 - so the life span of each individual Tyrannosaurus was nasty, brutish and short.

There is a good description of the asteroid strike that destroyed the dinosaurs, explaining how the impact doomed the dinosaurs even on the far side of the planet. This epic extinction event open the door for new animals to thrive - and mammals finally came out from the shadows and become the dominant life forms. Dinosaurs did not entirely disappear however, birds are the direct descendants of the dinosaurs.

My only major complaint with this book is Brusatte's description of his fellow paleontologists. Every single co-worker is the hippest, smartest and most brilliant scientist to ever walk the earth. The praise is heaped so high that I wonder if Brusatte took payments from his fellow paleontologists to give them favorable mention in his book. All these wasted pages describing his genius friends, and yet no discussion of Stegosaurs. Note to Brusatte: we don't care about your groovy friends.